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The University of Southampton
HistoryPart of Humanities

Research project: Children and young people as telephone users in Britain, c. 1984-1999

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This is an Arts and Humanities Research Council- funded project, exploring the recent history of children and young people’s telephone use in Britain.

Eve Colpus
Fig.1 Eve Colpus

This project is examining the history of children and young people’s telephone use in Britain in the years between 1984 and 1999. It is typically assumed that the popularization of social media post-2000 has marked the key turning point in the history of young people’s telephone use. I have chosen to research the years between 1984 and 1999 because this represented an equally dynamic transformation, when the marketization of the UK telephone network in 1984 stimulated new consumption, social and educational opportunities for young people’s telephone use. At the same time, the long-imagined ‘digital’ future became a reality through the rise of the mobile phone, and by 1999 growing numbers of young people owned a mobile.

What will we research? There are no dedicated archives of children or adolescents’ telephone use in the UK, but I have found that the image and experience of children and young people as telephone users can be traced through many different types of sources. There are three research strands on the project. Strand 1 investigates archival sources, including business and organisational records, toy collections, object collections, and diaries; and newspaper, magazine, television, and photography sources. Strand 2 is conducting oral history interviews with adults to trace childhood memories of telephone use. Strand 3 is engaged research. This includes digital mapping research, led by Dr Aaron Andrews, on our project website which is collecting memories of young people’s phone use, and engaged research with young people using arts methods and activities. We are collaborating with BT Heritage & Archives and John Hansard Gallery on this project.

This research has grown out of a previous Wellcome-Trust funded project (PI Eve Colpus and CI Jenny Crane), on ‘30 Years of ChildLine’, completed in 2016. This project explored the history of the UK children’s charity, ChildLine, which celebrated its 30-year anniversary in 2016. Dr Jenny Crane and I organised a witness seminar to create an oral history of the organisation, which resulted in the production of a digital archive, hosted at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

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